“Their strategy is clear: keep your head down, say as little as possible, express sympathy, admit nothing, pass the buck, pretend it is all very complicated, minimise reputational damage and financial loss.”
So said one of the QCs this week at the ongoing Grenfell Tower Inquiry when discussing the various governmental and corporate participants in the inquiry, including the construction professionals and organisations involved in the refurbishment of that building.
Deconstructed, that sounds almost like textbook advice from a traditional crisis PR team:
1. Keep your head down – because the media is hunting for a villain, but doesn’t know quite where to pinpoint them yet, so why attract all that attention onto you. By staying as quiet as possible the chances are that the media will focus on someone else;
2. Say as little as possible – because that also deprives the media of content and helps with step one above;
3. Express sympathy – because it’s legally safe to do this (sympathy doesn’t indicate liability), and frankly, if you didn’t, you’d look like a complete monster;
4. Admit nothing – because you are going to be paying lawyers millions for at least the next two years, and either they or your insurers will kill you if you hint at any sort of responsibility, for anything, ever;
5. Pass the buck – because you want to direct the media towards other villains (see step one above). The best you’re aiming for is to be considered more as technical experts with some sort of independence outside the direct circle of blame;
6. Say it’s all very complicated – because that’s ‘putting it all in context’ (an absolutely essential strategy in crisis PR);
7. Minimise reputational damage and financial loss – because you have a business still to run, good work still to do, and hungry mouths still to feed.
It’s just not enough, is it.
Now, there are plenty of case studies where organisations have taken moral, legal and communications ownership of tragedies, adopted a strong policy of openness, have apologised and changed their ways.
But with Grenfell? Could any of the construction industry organisations come to the inquiry with such transparency and be completely open about the catastrophic errors made? Could their crisis PR ever include an approach that includes the word ‘sorry’?
Even if it’s done in the spirit of ‘lessons have been learned’, I’m not sure any of them could do that now and survive. It’s too late.
You may argue they don’t deserve to survive. That may be justice.
But it also begs the question in my mind, what happens to crisis PR post-Grenfell?
Where is the scope to say sorry?
That’s why I’m so much in favour of the Apology Clause campaign, set up by three former colleagues of mine from Fishburn Hedges days: Nick Wright, Sue Stapely and Guy Corbet.
This campaign calls for:
- Greater awareness of the apology clause in the Compensation Act 2006 which says you can apologise safely – “an apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty”.
- Increased use of the clause so lawyers and business become increasingly comfortable using it.
- Better understanding among insurers, to make it easier for businesses to do the right thing without concern about redress.
- Clarification of the law: to define what it means by an apology, the scope of matters that it relates to, whether an apology is deemed in legal terms to be an admission, or if it is simply not admissible as an admission of liability, or whether an apology would void insurance contracts.
- An undertaking that an apology should include a commitment to look at the circumstances behind the event, with a view to preventing it from happening again.
As communications professionals, we may feel somewhat powerless to effect change post-Grenfell.
But we DO play a critical, strategic and practical role in the industry culture change we all want to see.
And as a very first step, I can think of no better way than to sign the petition in favour of the Apology Clause.